Refined, delicate, but with his usual penchant for decadency and flair, Ken Russell’s tale of the life and loves of Rudolph Valentino is a sumptuous and startling affair which has somewhat slipped through the cracks of time.
Thankfully, BFI are rarely ones to let a treasure fade into obscurity, and have begun making amends for the bizarre exclusion of Russell as part of the British cinematic lexicon. Rarely has the filmmaker been included in the same breath as the likes of Alan Parker, Dennis Potter, Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, despite being of the same generation and possessing all the antagonistic, socially-conscious and acerbic capabilities of any of the aforementioned writers and directors.
There has been something of a perpetual snobbery in critical circles when it comes to Ken Russell. Whilst his visual extravagance and penchant for lurid experimentation was acknowledged, it was oftentimes with a sense of superiority and disdain. As part of an ongoing series of releases which examine the great works and passions of Russell (on both the large and small screen), the BFI are rectifying this with a number of in-depth releases which not only restore his great works, but compliment them with the additional material which they so deserve.
Out now is Valentino, a raucous and lavish display of grandeur and madness, expertly delivered with a deftness of wit and aesthetic playfulness. Russian dance superstar Rudolf Nureyev takes the titular role of the legendary lothario and star of the silent screen whose death caused women to end their own lives, as they were so overcome with grief.
It is with this tragic end of the actor’s life that the feature begins, with a mob descending on the funeral home where Valentino’s corpse rests in its coffin amongst countless arrangements of flowers, basking in the warm glow of the tinted windows. A group of producers discuss the financial implications of his demise, and how they can turn the unexpected turn of events into a profitable one. Like jackals at a roadside corpse, they leer over the body in one of the movie’s many delightfully caustic analyses of the film industry.
Valentino takes on an unusual narrative stance, using the funeral home (and the chaos that descends upon it) as a framing device for a number of separate stories; each one a personal account from one of the (not insignificant amount of) women in his life. From the motherly to the mystical, their influences upon him are all as important as the last, and all as helpless when it came to containing or keeping him.
A passionate and determined individualist, Valentino feels like an outsider from the very beginning. As much out of place in his menial jobs as he is on the set of the epics he would go on to star in, he echoes the artistic frustration of both Russell (also a dancer in his youth) and Nureyev.
With an outstanding supporting cast from Carol Kane, Michelle Phillips and Felicity Kendal, as well as one of the most disturbing performances ever witnessed from Dudley Sutton, Valentino is nothing short of a classic ensemble piece of 70s marvel, catching the last gasps of breath left in the wild and progressive filmmaking ethos which existed so strongly in that decade.
Dangerous, erotic and wholly engaging, Valentino is a film which was prescient in its composition, making it ideal for a luxurious Blu-Ray treatment. An informative and lively commentary from Video Watchdog’s Tim Lucas provide a torrent of trivia, the likes of which only he could deliver, and additional interviews (including a painfully sweet one with Sutton), top off the spectacle. More daring than Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation of The Great Gatsby (which failed to portray the true decadence of the era), Valentino is as enchanting and irresistible as its subject matter. Just don’t expect it to be an exclusive arrangement.
NB: Trailer not representative of restored BFI version. For contextual purposes only.